Vets use fish skin to heal bears injured in California wildfires


When two bears suffered painful burns while escaping Southern California’s wildfires, veterinarians used an unconventional bandage to treat the animals’ paws: fish skin. 

The bears, along with a young mountain lion with less severe burns, were treated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife after the Thomas Fire burned through Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. The wildfires that swept through California in late 2017 were the worst in the state’s history. The Thomas Fire was the largest ever recorded, burning through 273,400 acres. 

According to a statement by the CDFW, the bears’ injuries were severe, with “oozing wounds, and, in some cases, paw pads that were completely burned off.”

Deana Clifford, senior wildlife veterinarian at the CDFW, and Jamie Peyton, chief of integrative medicine at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis treated the animals by using fresh tilapia skin instead of traditional bandages. 

Peyton sutured tilapia skin directly onto the bears’ paws.

Image: California department of fish and wildlife

They opted to use fish skin because its collagen levels and moisture retention abilities are similar to human skin. Researchers in Brazil have used fish skin, in favor of human skin grafts, to bandage burn victims, but the practice hasn’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use on humans in the United States.

After applying a homemade salve to speed up healing, Peyton and Clifford cut grafts of sterilized tilapia skin and sutured them directly onto the animals’ paws while they were under anesthesia. To prevent them from eating the fish skin, they wrapped the animals’ paws in corn husks and rice paper. (The mountain lion ended up eating his, anyway.)

“One of the first things that the bear did was stand up after we applied them,” Peyton said in a statement released by UC Davis. “She was more mobile, which in my mind is a huge success for pain control.”

Veterinarians wrapped the animals' paws in corn husks and rice paper to prevent them from eating the fish skin grafts.

Veterinarians wrapped the animals’ paws in corn husks and rice paper to prevent them from eating the fish skin grafts.

Image: california department of fish and wildlife

Although the animals received three treatments over the course of a month, Peyton told Mashable that the path to recovery was “fraught with more challenges.” Unlike with treating domestic pets, it wasn’t possible to clean, care, and bandage wounds on a daily basis. She said it was also more difficult to manage their pain with medications, and that they had to deal with “a time crunch to get them back to the wild as soon as possible.”

“Despite these challenges our therapies helped these animals recover faster than we have noted in some companion animals,” Peyton said, “The use of the tilapia skin bandages made a remarkable difference in their pain control and healing ability.”

The bears also received acupuncture, which has been administered to pets for years. Peyton said the treatment was similar to that given to dogs and cats. “The principles of pain management and wound healing are similar across many species,” she said. 

One of the bears shortly before she was released back into the wild.

One of the bears shortly before she was released back into the wild.

Image: California department of fish and wildlife

To complicate recovery even more, the doctors discovered that one of the bears was pregnant during a routine ultrasound. 

“That was a game changer for us, because we knew it wouldn’t be ideal for her to give birth in confinement,” Clifford said in CDFW’s statement. “We aren’t really set up to have a birth at the lab holding facilities, and we knew there was a high probability that she could reject the cub, due to all the stress she was under. We needed to get her back into the wild as quickly as possible.”

The CDFW team built winter dens so the bears could wake up in safety.

The CDFW team built winter dens so the bears could wake up in safety.

Image: california department of fish and wildlife

Since the bears’ natural habitats were destroyed during the fire, officials from the CDFW built winter dens for each of the animals to sleep in and be protected from danger. The team released them into the wild on Wednesday and plan on monitoring the rest of their recovery via satellite. 

Peyton doesn’t see fish skin becoming a standard treatment for human burn victims in the United States because there are multiple skin graft banks that have the resources to treat patients. However, she does believe there may be more demand for alternatives like tilapia skin in countries with fewer banks and less readily available resources.

“I think we definitely need more research in this area to determine if it will be used more extensively in people,” Peyton said. “Based on what we have seen in these animals, there is potential for this to be a more commonly used therapy in the future.”

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